Ezra Koenig and drummer Chris Tomson started playing together in a rap collaboration named “L’Homme Run” while attending Columbia University. The pair were interested in punk and African music, and named their band after a short film Koenig attempted to make about a vampire invasion of Cape Cod. Koenig and Tomson were joined by multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij and bassist Chris Baio.
The quartet arrived late in the indie-pop boom of the 2000s, with their debut album released in 2008. Vampire Weekend was immediately successful, cracking the US top 20, and attracting attention with its incorporation of African beats and textures into their sound. While Vampire Weekend have been immensely successful, scoring #1 albums and Grammy wins, they’ve also faced criticism for cultural appropriation; the New Yorker labelled the band as “avatars of bourgeois lameness”.
Batmanglij left the band in 2016, while Koenig wrote and produced an anime series, Neo Yokio, for Netflix. After a lengthy hiatus, Vampire Weekend returned in 2019 with their fourth album, Father of the Bride.
Vampire Weekend Album Reviews
Vampire Weekend’s debut album showcases a band bringing unusual angles to indie pop. There’s an African influence in the guitars and rhythms – Vampire Weekend was compared to Paul Simon’s Graceland, and name-checks Peter Gabriel on the wonderfully named ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’. There’s also a chamber-pop flavour to some songs, with orchestral flavours dominating. Vampire Weekend was produced by band member Rostam Batmanglij, whose extremely impressive in his first effort.
For all the disparate musical elements that Vampire Weekend bring together on their debut, the focal point is Koenig’s lyrics and vocals. He’s reminiscent of David Byrne with his likeable awkwardness, as well as the bloodlessness of Paul Simon. He’s clearly been to university, as evidenced by the lyrics of ‘Oxford Comma’ (actually about anti-elitism) and ‘Campus’. The band’s orchestral arrangement shine on ‘M79’, while the African sound is at the forefront on standout tracks ‘A-Punk’ and ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’.
Vampire Weekend is a fresh-sounding, tuneful debut – I’d mark it higher if the band hadn’t continued to grow with each album.
Vampire Weekend didn’t attempt anything radically different on their sophomore record, expanding on the framework of their debut. It’s more relaxed and diverse – it lacks the effervescence of the best tracks from Vampire Weekend, but it maps out new territory for the band. According to Koenig the title is a reference to conflict, one that doesn’t imply that one side is better than the other.
The African textures of Vampire Weekend are still present, but they’ve been augmented with other sounds. Closer ‘I Think UR A Contra’ is pared back to synths and gentle rhythm, while Koenig tries out speed rap on ‘California English’. ‘Holiday’ resembles ska, but borrows its opening line from English folk chestnut ‘Matty Groves’ (most famously covered by Fairport Convention).
With its more subdued feel, Contra is a more difficult record to grasp than Vampire Weekend, but it’s a substantial work that repays the effort.
Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend’s third album utilised the studio as an instrument. Batmanglij produced along with Ariel Rechtshaid, and the pair’s objective was to make an album that sounded markedly different from their first two records. Rechtshaid stated that “Whenever we came up with something familiar sounding, it was rejected”. The production experiments with pitch shifting – Koenig’s vocals are altered on ‘Diane Young’, shifting to an Elvis baritone, while Tomson’s drums are also the focus on sonic experimentation.
Despite the world-weary tone and the studio-based nature of Modern Vampires of the City, it often retains the energetic tempos of Vampire Weekend’s earlier work – stripped of the studio candy, songs like ‘Unbelievers’ and ‘Worship You’ would still be standout tracks on earlier records. The drums are high in the mix, and provide propulsion to songs like ‘Don’t Lie’. David Gates gets a co-writing credit on standout track ‘Step’, as the song uses a sample of Grover Washington’s cover of Bread’s ‘Aubrey’, as well as showcasing Koenig’s lovely higher register. The slower tracks like ‘Hannah Hunt’ and ‘Young Lion’ are also lovely, stewing in pretty ambience.
Modern Vampires of the City won the 2014 Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album and it’s well deserved – a brilliant creation that adds new timbres to Vampire Weekend without detracting from their core strengths.
Father of the Bride
After Modern Vampires of the City, multi-instrumentalist and producer Rostam Batmanglij left the band. Koenig took time out from Vampire Weekend, creating the Netflix anime series Neo Yokio and becoming a father. His partner is actress Rashida Jones, which effectively makes Quincy Jones the titular Father of the Bride.
Koenig also relocated from New York to L.A., and Father of the Bride reflects the change in scenery. Like Vampire Weekend’s earlier albums, Father of the Bride is neurotic, but this time it’s paired with sun-kissed music, with healthy dollops of country and Laurel Canyon folk. Koenig was influenced by country star Kacey Musgraves, and Father of the Bride mines similar territory to 2018’s superlative Golden Hour.
With all the changes, as well as the six year gap, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Father of the Bride to be branded as an Ezra Koenig solo project, but it’s a terrific addition to the band’s legacy. Koenig’s main collaborator is Ariel Rechtshaid, who also co-produced Modern Vampires of the City. Also prominent is Rechtshaid’s partner, Danielle Haim, who duets with Koenig on three tracks, and also contributes background vocals. Californian alternative R&B musician Steve Lacy contributes to ‘Sunflower’ and ‘Flower Moon’.
At almost an hour’s running time, Father of the Bride is significantly longer than any other Vampire Weekend studio project; Koenig felt that he owed fans a substantial record after such a long time away. Despite the length, the 18 songs are unified in feel – a Californian aesthetic tying them together. Koenig describes it as “spring-time” vibe. There are enough great songs on Father of the Bride that new highlights jump out on each listen.
The three duets with Danielle Haim punctuate the record, three country duets documenting different points in a relationship. The opener ‘Hold You Now’ is sparse and tender, while ‘We Belong Together’ is the upbeat conclusion near the end of the running order. Haim also provides backing vocals for lead single ‘Harmony Hall’ features a lovely acoustic riff, fluid piano, and a chorus that re-purposes the line “I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die” from 2013’s ‘Finger Back’. The use of short songs helps the album’s pacing – some of my favourite songs here are brief. The pretty ‘2021’ uses a vocals sample from Jenny Lewis. ‘Bambina’ covers an amazing amount of ground in less than two minutes of running time.
Father of the Bride is a significant departure from Vampire Weekend’s earlier work, certain to disenfranchise existing fans while creating new ones. It’s a lyrically dense, musically fascinating masterpiece that’s a contender for album of the year.
Ten Best Vampire Weekend Songs
I Think UR A Contra